The Politicization of Immigration and the Notion of Invasion: Human Rights Violations on the US-Mexico Border

 

by Lexie Woolums

Trigger Warning: This post discusses immigration, including physical barriers for migrants. The article includes a discussion of some drownings and other instances of death.

 

Broadly speaking, migration is not a new concept. The United States was built by people who were not from here, including people who were forced to come here through enslavement and others who were violently moved against their will through the relocation of indigenous peoples on the Trail of Tears. There have been different waves of immigration, where different crises from around the world prompted people to come to the United States seeking better opportunities.

For example, from 1845 to 1855, around 1.5 million Irish people settled in the United States due to potato blight combined with Britain’s colonial control that forced available crops to be exported out of Ireland. More recently, the US has admitted nearly 300,000 Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. There are many more examples of this, from Italian immigrants moving to the US in search of economic opportunities around the turn of the twentieth century to the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants after World War II due to economic depression in Puerto Rico, cheaper air travel, and job opportunities in the US.

A black and white photo of men wearing clothing from the early 1900s. The men are carrying suit cases and standing in a line at Ellis Island after arriving in the US.
Figure 1: Immigrants at Ellis Island c. 1900, Source: Yahoo Images

It’s no secret that not all migrants are treated the same—a concept that Danah Dibb previously wrote about on the blog. Additionally, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote an article that discusses two specific scenarios that effectively demonstrate how politicized immigration has become in the US—one with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas sending busloads of migrants to Vice President Harris’s neighborhood and one with Governor Ron Desantis of Florida sending planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts—scenarios that in any other context would be considered human trafficking.

 

Politicization of Immigration in the US

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, the percentage of people who want immigration to decrease peaked in the mid-nineties with 65 percent of Americans against immigration. In a near all-time low, this number was 31 percent in 2018. Today, that percentage lies around 41 percent—an increase from 2018 but much lower than it was at its peak and still a minority of the polled population.

For much of the 1990s, both major political parties shared similar views on immigration (though they may have disagreed on the way to do things), but that started to change around 2006 and has become much wider today. Today a Democrat is twice as likely to share the view that immigrants strengthen the economy compared to a Republican.

Various presidencies have highlighted different aspects of immigration in the United States, but it has become a topic that is far more divisive in the wake of the Trump Administration. Former President Trump’s stance on immigration was well-known and relatively simple—build a wall to prevent illegal immigration. He favored a policy of “busing and dumping” immigrants to states that had pro-immigration policies; additionally, he also made comments about securing the border from “rapists and criminals” despite the fact that first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump became known to make off-the-cuff remarks—especially about immigration—that were frequently called out for being racist and xenophobic.

As the President of a free country that is as powerful as the United States, having views like this stirred uneasiness across the United States, especially among minority populations. This rhetoric of invasion is not new, but it does fuel extremism and racism.

 

Operation Lone Star

Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, shortly after President Biden took office. Governor Abbot has sent state troopers and members of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border as a part of the operation. Additionally, the Rio Grande River has been lined with various obstacles, from shipping containers to concertina wire. This is all under what is known as Operation Lone Star, which is a multibillion-dollar operation to mitigate illegal immigration and smuggling at the US-Mexico border. According to the Operation Lone Star website, the agency fills in the Biden Administration’s “dangerous gaps [due to its] refusal to secure the border.” It also regularly buses migrants to sanctuary cities.

Governor Abbott has coined the situation at the US-Mexico Border an “invasion,” which he claims allows him to invoke the invasion clauses in the Texas and US Constitutions. Through this rationale, he has the authority to defend the border through his own policies, even though immigration policy has been under the jurisdiction of the federal government since the 2012 landmark case of United States v Arizona. Human rights advocates have warned of the danger of referring to the border as an invasion since most migrants are seeking to claim refugee legal status and are not attacking the United States in any sense. University of Texas law professor Barabara Hines called this notion of invasion “unprecedented and extreme.” Additionally, Operation Lone Star is under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine if it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More specifically, the department is investigating if the state agency is subjecting individuals to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

Four men in military uniforms stand with another man wearing a maroon button down.
Figure 2: Members of the Texas Military Forces pose for a picture with representatives of the Remote Area Medical Foundation, Source: Yahoo Images

The Rio Grande River serves as a natural boundary between the United States and Mexico. Over the summer, national attention was brought to Texas when Governor Abbott announced that the agency would be implementing a 1,000-foot-long string of buoys with serrated blades in between them, with a mesh net that would connect them to below the surface. More specifically, the Texan government stated that they were installing the “new floating marine barriers along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass” in an effort to “help deter illegal immigrants attempting to make the dangerous river crossing into Texas.”

 

Human Rights Concerns

According to the Texas Department of Security, there has been at least one body found caught on the Southern side of the buoys, but they claimed that this body was initially upstream of the floating device and floated into it. Later, the body of a 20-year-old Honduran man was recovered, but it was reportedly upstream of the floating device.

Human rights groups have criticized the floatation device with concerns about humanitarian hazards such as migrants becoming caught in the device or drowning due to its placement. Even without the floatation buoy, crossing the border is extremely dangerous. Even before this barrier was implemented, migrant deaths on the US-Mexico border have hit an all-time high. In the 2022 fiscal year alone, over 800 migrants died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, largely from drownings. This stretch of the border is so dangerous that the United Nations migration agency declared the US-Mexico border as the deadliest land border in the world.

Beyond the buoys, numerous reported human rights concerns with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exist. According to a 2023 report by WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, migrants are frequently treated poorly by CBP, which is the largest law enforcement agency in the US. One of the cases in the report is about an 8-year-old Panamanian girl named Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in custody of CBP because she was denied a critical heart medication. Specifically, the report notes that this death was preventable.

Engraved sign on a concrete building that reads " U.S. Customs and Border Protection."
Figure 3: US Customs and Border Patrol Building in Washington, DC, Source: Yahoo Images

Another issue is that accountability for CBP officers is extremely rare. The same report states, “Most of the cases … would have gone completely unknown without reporting from victims and those, outside of government, who accompany them. That such abuses are happening so frequently at CBP and Border Patrol indicates that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) accountability system has done little to dissuade or disincentivize them.” A 2023 study found that 95 percent of complaints from 2010-2022 did not have a proper investigation.

In addition to the numerous reported concerns of CBP abuses, CBP followed a Congressional policy change in September 2021, which means that the agency only reports the deaths of people who died while in CBP custody. Though this change may not necessarily be bad, it is concerning when there are reports of CBP officers lying to migrants about where to go since this puts them at a higher risk of sickness or death that would not be counted in the CBP reports under the new policy (if the person is no longer in CBP custody when they die).

The US CBP came out with a policy known as “prevention through deterrence” in 1994. This policy sought to block popular crossing spots and push migrants into the dangerous areas of the sea and river crossings.  In theory, this would show migrants how dangerous the crossing is so that if they are caught and sent back (which often happens when migrants cross illegally), they would not attempt to cross again. However, it is no secret that this strategy is not effective in reducing the number of crossings. According to an article by the London School of Economics, this approach has not been effective in limiting the number of migrants seeking to enter the US but has increased the number of fatalities.

A view of a bluish green river stretching through the desert. Mountains are present in the background. The shore of the river is mostly sand, with some short green shrubbery present.
Figure 4: A Portion of The Rio Grande River in Texas. Source: Yahoo Images

Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned Operation Lone Star’s instructions for Texas officials to push young children and nursing mothers back into the Rio Grande. According to the article, Texas uses harmful techniques like razor wire, even after children have been injured and one woman miscarried while stuck in the wire.

Sarah Mehta, ACLU senior border policy counsel, stated, “Texas must immediately stop intentionally endangering the lives of migrants seeking protection at the border. The federal government must also act by investigating these damning allegations and by the Department of Homeland Security decisively ending its own collusion with Operation Lone Star, which has facilitated and encouraged Texas’s expansion of a proven human and civil rights disaster.”

 

Federal Response

The Biden Administration has criticized this, citing the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prevents the “creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States.” This act gives the Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate all navigable waters through permitting. The federal lawsuit against Texas also alleges they did not get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before placing the barrier on the river.

The federal government initially asked Texas officials to remove the barriers. Governor Abbott replied in a letter that stated, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” implying that Texas would not remove the buoys without legal action. Subsequently, the Department of Justice sued Texas and asked a judge to make Texas remove the buoys.

US-Mexico border coordinator Hillary Quam expressed concern in an affidavit that accompanied the request to a federal judge to have the barriers removed: “If the barrier is not removed expeditiously, its presence will have an adverse impact on U.S. foreign policy, including our relationship with the government of Mexico.”

The request of the federal government was granted by Federal District Judge David A. Ezra, who ruled that Texas must remove the floating barriers. Legally speaking, he issued a preliminary injunction, which preserves the status quo until final judgment (the final ruling of the court). In essence, this meant that the buoys would need to be removed until the case reached its final court decision. Ezra stated the following in the discussion: “Governor Abbott announced that he was not ‘asking for permission’ for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier. Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation’s navigable waters.”

Governor Abbott’s office appealed this ruling, stating that Texas “is prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court.” The federal appeals court granted the request to halt the temporary injunction, but a hearing date has not been set, so the floating barrier remains in the Rio Grande until a further decision is made.

 

Mexican Response

The Mexican government has criticized the placement of these buoys, claiming that the placement is a violation of their sovereignty. More specifically, they have referenced that the presence of these buoys violates the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944.

Regarding the bodies, the Mexican government issued the following statement: “We express our concern about the impact on the human rights and personal safety of migrants that these state policies will have, which run counter to the close collaboration between our country and the federal government of the United States.”

A spokesperson for Governor Abbott claimed that the Mexican government was “flat-out wrong,” stating that neither body was attempting to cross the floating barriers.

 

Conclusion

It has been over 40 years since Congress reformed the US immigration system. According to the Center for American Progress, putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship would increase the US GDP by $1.7 trillion over the next decade. According to the Pew Research Center, immigrant families are expected to comprise 88 percent of the US population growth through 2065. To say that reform is necessary is an understatement.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, migration is not a new concept. Unfortunately, it has been used as a political pawn in many ways. From the rhetoric of dangerous crime to the mentality that immigrants “take all the jobs,” misunderstanding has been weaponized against groups of people for a long time, and that likely will not change until we learn to be more compassionate and think of better solutions for our broken immigration system.

A group of protesters standing with a large red sign. The sign reads "New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform." Underneath, it says "Citizenship Now! Keep Families Together! Protect Workers! Safeguard Civil Rights!"
Figure 5: Protesters in New York City. Source: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, it is important to be critical of political officials who weaponize differences and prey on misunderstanding to further their own political agenda. To label such a diverse group as one negative thing that threatens the authority and safety of the United States is not only racist and xenophobic, but it undermines the value of the diverse groups of people who built this country (including the people who were forced to migrate to and build this country, whose impact often goes unrecognized even today). This portrayal minimizes the value of people with diverse experiences and limits the discussion of how crucial immigrants have been and continue to be in the US.

It is also imperative to recognize how slavery, forced assimilation, and genocide have both formed the social hierarchy we have today and continue to perpetuate racism, especially in the context of immigration. If you have not heard of the concept of “passport privilege” (including simply having a passport) or the connotative distinction between the words immigrant and expatriate or expat (not just their dictionary definitions), I highly recommend learning these concepts. It is important to examine where you fit within them, and which preconceived (perhaps racist) notions you might carry about a person based on job, skin color, accent, religion, or anything else.

Society will not change unless individual people change, so even if there is limited direct political action to take as of right now, there is still a lot of room to grow your understanding of these concepts so that racist institutions can be better understood and effectively dismantled.

A Brief History of Disability Advocacy in America & How the Colby Act is a Step Forward

by Lexie Woolums

“It will help me live a full life — to vote, to marry, and to go to church. It will help people with disabilities to live their own lives and speak for themselves.” – Colby Spangler.

How the Colby Act Began

The Colby Act is named after Colby Spangler, a Shelby County resident who was born with cerebral palsy.

Kim Spangler, Colby’s mom, remembers when she and Colby attended the Spring concert for Colby’s high school band. Colby had been in the school’s band for a year as a freshman. At this concert, the seniors stood up and declared where they would be attending college.

This prompted Colby to ask his mom where he would be going to college, which is something she had yet to consider.

Throughout Colby’s high school career, they began researching colleges that he could attend. Through this research, they learned that Colby’s individualized education plan (IEP) had to reach a certain degree for him to qualify to attend college. They also learned that most college programs preferred or even required that the student was their own guardian rather than being under guardianship by someone else, which was important to note since guardianship is a common occurrence as young people with disabilities become legal adults in Alabama at the age of nineteen. Some critics have called this the “school to guardianship pipeline.”

According to Kim, many people do not realize how many rights people sign away with guardianship, such as the right to vote, marry, and even where you can live.

Through this knowledge, combined with Kim’s advocacy as Colby went through high school, the Colby Act was born. Kim introduced the act in 2022, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Cynthia Almond (R-Tuscaloosa). After being unanimously passed on April 20, 2023, the bill was signed into law by Governor Ivey and later went into effect on August 1, 2023. I will discuss this in further detail later, but the Colby Act proposes a legal alternative to guardianship known as supported decision-making. This is an important improvement for disabled people and elderly people since it will preserve their autonomy.

 

Colby wearing a shirt that says "The Colby Act, vote yes!" next to Representative Cynthia Almond of Tuscaloosa.
Figure 2:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby & Representative Cynthia Almond,
who co-sponsored The Colby Act with Senator Arthur Orr. 

 

History of Disability Advocacy in America

In the United States, people with disabilities have historically had their rights ignored or entirely removed. While I will not go into explicit detail here, my colleague, James DeLano, recently wrote an article about the atrocities of institutions for disabled people. Though institutions in the context of James’s discussion are far from the only instances where disabled people face being stripped of their rights, I found the brief history to be exceedingly informative as I wrote this article.

Legally and socially, disability rights have not always been viewed as civil rights but through a lens of charity, especially in the case of developmental and intellectual disabilities. Beyond that, legal action to protect disabled Americans came exceptionally slowly.

In 1977, President Carter’s new HEW (Housing, Education, and Welfare) Secretary, Joseph Califano, formed a review board to consider an act that would protect disabled people under federal law. Unfortunately, the board did not include anyone from the disabled community, so many people were concerned that the law would have critical aspects of it removed before being passed. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) pushed for the signing of the regulations as they were, with nothing removed by the review board. They stated that if the piece was not signed by April 5, they would respond.

As the date passed with no action, protests began. In April of 1977, around 150 disability advocates staged a sit in a federal building in San Francisco. They remained there for 25 days, refusing to leave until the Carter Administration signed the law that promised to protect people with disabilities. Similar protests broke out across the United States, but most only lasted a few days, making San Francisco one the most impactful.

 

a black and white photo featuring disability rights advocates. In the center, a person in a wheelchair has a sign that reads "I can't even get to the back of the bus."
Figure 3:Source- Yahoo Images; Disability protesters

 

These are known today as the Section 504 protests. They were a significant turning point because disabled people publicly rejected the pity and charity sentiments and held the Carter Administration accountable for giving them the same protections as every other American.

“Through the sit-in, we turned ourselves from being oppressed individuals into being empowered people. We demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality,” said activist Judith Heumann.

Through the protests and meetings with the Carter Administration, Section 504 was passed. Beyond that, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which prevented any institution receiving federal funds from discriminating based on ability.

Black and white image of a person holding a protest sign that reads "504 is law now make it reality."
Figure 4:Source-Yahoo Images; Protest sign mentioning Section 504

Considering the history of disability advocacy in the US, we have come a long way. Despite that, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially for people with intellectual disabilities.

 

Distinction of Conservatorship and Guardianship in Alabama

Before diving into what the Colby Act does for Alabamians today, I want to address the elephant in the room and make an important distinction.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a few cases where conservatorships have come under fire, most notably with US pop star Britney Spears. Her father, Jamie Spears, became the conservator of her financial estate and personal life in 2008. One of the more significant outcries from this was when Britney Spears commented that she could not get married and have kids due to her conservatorship. More specifically, she claimed that they would not allow her to have her birth control removed. Many aspects of this conservatorship were considered abusive by much of the general public, sparking the Free Britney movement in 2021. I bring this up to clarify an essential distinction in discussing conservatorships.

Other stories like this have been brought to the public’s attention recently, bringing awareness to conservatorship abuse. With that being said, not all of them represent how conservatorships function in Alabama. In California, where the Spears conservatorship was established, conservators have jurisdiction over the ward’s financial estate and personal life decisions, which would not be the case in Alabama. In Alabama, a conservator has jurisdiction over the person’s estate. In contrast, a guardian would have jurisdiction over a person’s decisions, including the ability to get married or have children.

To put it simply, a guardian makes decisions for a person’s everyday life, and a conservator makes decisions for their financial estate. So, in the state of Alabama, for a person to have the control that Jamie Spears had, they would have to obtain two distinct approvals from a Probate Court: one for a conservatorship of the person’s estate and the other for a guardianship of the person’s decisions in their personal life. With that distinction in mind, we will look at how guardianships impact people with disabilities.

 

Colby standing and smiling for the photo in between James Tucker and Nancy Anderson of ADAP at an event.
Figure 5:Source-Kim Spangler; James Tucker & Nancy Anderson of ADAP
with Colby at a Partners in Policy for Alabama Event

Guardianships for Disabled People in Alabama

In Alabama, the primary way for parents of people with disabilities to help protect their children and young adults as they transition into adulthood at the age of nineteen is by getting guardianship over them.

Guardianship is used when a court proceeding finds a person to be incapacitated. According to the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP), Alabama law defines an incapacitated person as “any person who has one or more of the following impairments: mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, physical or mental infirmities accompanying advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause (except minority), and lacks the ability to make or communicate responsible decisions.”

In essence, guardianship allows another person to make decisions if a court determines someone is incapacitated. Similarly, conservatorship enables another person to make decisions about a person’s estate if a court determines that someone is incapacitated.

The important thing I want to note here is that to be legally declared incapacitated, the person must have one of the listed impairments and lack the ability to make responsible decisions. The person petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship must prove to a judge that the person is incapacitated based on these criteria.

Many people have guardians for a variety of reasons. For example, many older adults struggle to make responsible decisions and keep themselves and others safe as they grow older, so guardianship is sometimes needed so that family members can help with medical appointments and make decisions about other fundamental aspects of the person’s life.

While guardianships are necessary for some people who are disabled, they have been used as a one-size-fits-all solution, which fails to account for the varying abilities and needs of different people with disabilities.

Guardianship also proves problematic if a guardian decides they no longer want to have the responsibilities of being a guardian. More commonly, the guardian dies, which can result in a delay in decision-making for the ward (the person for whom the guardianship is for).

Often, it takes time for a new guardian to be set up. In many cases, the ward will become a ward of the state, which means that a judge, or, in some cases, even a sheriff, can become the ward’s guardian. State wards are often overworked and underfunded. Beyond that, they have little personal connection to the ward, which increases the risk of the person’s quality of life declining significantly.

 

Section one of the 14th Amendment, which states "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Figure 6:Source-Yahoo Images; 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause that formed the basis of the argument for disability inclusion and signing of Section 504

 

Autonomy vs. Protection

One concern for people who have disabilities, especially intellectually disabled people, is the fear of people taking advantage of them. Commonly, guardianships have been established to protect the person from harm, even though they don’t always give parents the protection they seek for the adult.

For example, suppose a young adult has a past of being a victim of domestic abuse. In that case, guardianship may not necessarily protect them from that. Still, it is often viewed as a sort of legal footstep for the guardian to step in if things go wrong. Unfortunately, this is not always effective and is still extremely limited in its ability to prevent harm.

While some disabled people may require guardians, the one-size-fits-all approach of guardianship has been seen as the only option for far too long.

 

What The Colby Act Does for Alabamians Today

The Colby Act introduces the concept of supported decision-making for adults with disabilities in Alabama, making it the 19th state with supported decision-making (SDM) laws.

The Colby Act defines supported decision-making as “The process of supporting and accommodating an adult in the decision-making process without impeding the self-determination of the adult. This term includes assistance in making, communicating, and effectuating life decisions.” More specifically, the act states the following: “In lieu of a guardianship, an adult may enter into a supported decision-making agreement with supporters who may assist and advise the adult with making certain decisions without impeding the adult’s self-determination.”

This is a critical option for a disabled person who may need assistance making decisions but is not incapacitated as defined by the state, in which case a guardianship would unnecessarily strip them of their autonomy. This can also be a helpful option for aging adults since setting up an SDM agreement can prevent the need for guardians or conservators as they become elders.

The Colby Act defines a supporter as “An individual at least 18 years of age who has voluntarily entered into a supported decision-making agreement with an adult and is designated as such in a supported decision-making agreement.” It also establishes criteria for supporters and limitations on them, such as not obtaining information about the person for purposes beyond their role as a supporter.

Another significant piece of the act is the subject can revoke the SDM agreement at any time by notifying each supporter in writing. This is important because it preserves the adult’s agency and autonomy, allowing them to change the agreement or revoke it if it does not facilitate their ability to live a full life as anyone else would.

 

Colby stands in a black graduation cap and gown. He stands in front of a wall of red and white balloons, with a sign above that reads "where legends are made."
Figure 7:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby celebrating graduation from the College of Education’s
CCOS program at the University of Alabama.

 

The Colby Act is a big deal because it provides a law for something that has been happening informally for a long time. Due to the passing of the Colby Act, people who create supported decision-making agreements will now have additional protections behind the law. Though supported decision-making may not be an effective alternative for every instance where a family is considering guardianship, it is a substantial step in providing an alternative for disabled people who could benefit from a less invasive approach.

The Excessive Nature of Overconsumption in American Culture

by Lexie Woolums

One of the things that dominate American society is what I like to call the “epitome of excess.”

We live in a capitalistic culture that thrives on consumers’ dissatisfaction. Our society’s culture defines American success as getting promoted to a position high enough that one can make enough money to purchase a big house in the suburbs, add a few cars, and have an annual family vacation.

Influencers on social media have added to this growing consumption. People have access to information via “Get Ready With Me” vlogs on TikTok, which feature various (expensive) products to desire based on trends that go in and out of style in just a few short months. This cultural desire to keep up with trends causes a constantly growing urge to have more. Nearly everything is capitalized on, giving us a concept initially coined by Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s known as the attention economy. Digital creators earn money based on views and engagement from their followers. People online regularly discuss strategies to “trick the algorithm” to further capitalize on this economy where time is one of the most valuable things someone can “give,” similar to how we have traditionally viewed money and, later, information. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind, but not in the same way that my grandparents would understand it.

Beyond seeking to maximize the number of seconds a viewer will stay on the video before swiping, this culture has other effects. It pushes for overconsumption. It has become common to see content creators post videos of six dresses they ordered while asking their followers to “help them choose which one to wear” to the event they have coming up. When I was in high school, everyone wanted the Hydro flask. Today, it is the Stanley Cup. As I wrote this article, I was notified that the newest cup fascination is an Owala.

A girl taking a picture of a folded piece of pizza with her phone
Figure 1- Source: Yahoo Images; Taking photos and videos to put on social media is easier than ever.

It has even become ordinary for content creators to try and capture views by “de-influencing” whatever the sought-after object is at the time. Spoiler alert: this is generally just pointing to a different brand of metal cup on Amazon that is better and cheaper than the almighty Stanley cup (and, coincidentally, listed in the person’s Amazon storefront, where they earn a commission on every purchase made).

This is just influencing—a system that attempts to capitalize on the attention that follows dissent.  The concept is not new, but it has changed how people earn money.

People run entire side hustles by making videos showcasing “Five Products You Need from Amazon,” with aesthetic videos of acrylic containers or trendy dresses.

It is normal to hear people joke about “doomscrolling” for hours online, highlighting the over-encompassing nature of modern social media and its role in our everyday lives. The pervasive nature of this beast has become an accepted fact of life, so we do not always think about questioning it. It takes a degree of separation before one might stop and think, what is the cost of this lifestyle? We do not generally stop to consider how the Amazon package made it to our house in two days. We rarely ask who made the trendy cup we found at Walmart or the skirt we found at American Eagle.

We rarely ask any questions about the actual cost of what we consume.

Customers entering and exiting an escalator to enter Zara fashion store.
Figure 2- Source: Yahoo Images; Zara is a well-known fast fashion brand.

As a culture, we are so far disconnected from the places and communities that create the products we use that many Americans would struggle to imagine what life would be like if we did not have access to these things. As a culture, we love a bargain, especially when we get to tell someone else about the three-dollar T-shirt we found at Target. What a steal!

It is a culture of mass consumption, and no one is immune to it. From a nicer car to a bigger house to a new water bottle or wardrobe (even when you do not use most of what you have), the desire to have more continues, especially within fashion.

Overconsumption has more negative effects than I can effectively capture in one blog post. It exists in all aspects of life across all sectors of commerce. Based on personal experience as a woman living in the world, fast fashion is one of the most pervasive issues that could be addressed more effectively if more people stopped to question before they purchased.

For this reason, I am honing in on fashion today, but by no means is that to imply that fashion is the sole or most important issue of our insatiable, overconsuming culture.

 

History

To contextualize the history of fashion consumption, it is important to mention how the fashion industry has shifted its production model over time.

Historically, most clothing purchased in the United States was produced within the country, created by garment workers during the Industrial Revolution. While I will not delve into much of the history here, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote a phenomenal blog that delves further into the history of fashion. I highly encourage people to check that out if they are interested.

A black and white photo that shows a large textile machine with a child standing in the foreground and an older person standing blurred in the background
Figure 3- Source: Yahoo Images; A child working on a textile machine in the industrial era

For the purpose of this blog, the critical thing to note is that this system of domestic production and consumption is no longer standard (and is actually pretty rare) and that most large fashion companies have shifted production into different countries in the Global South, so they can take advantage of the cheaper labor.

 

Pollution

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, sitting right behind big oil. As of 2019, H&M was known for having $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Some of the unsold clothing is used to fuel a power plant in Sweden. Still, H&M (and many other brands) still produce a high quantity of textile waste that never gets used, and in many places, it gets sent straight to landfills. People consume 400% more clothing today than twenty years ago. This excessive consumption tends to contribute to human rights inequities like gender inequality since most garment workers are women. It also contributes to the climate crisis due to the manufacturing of chemicals and landfilled textile waste.

The entire business model of fast fashion companies exists based on the idea that consumers will buy things, wear them a few times, and then toss them out and buy more to try and keep up with cycling trends. This model relies on (and intends for) the products to only be used a few times before being thrown out.

With our current consumption habits, the best-case scenario is that an item will be purchased and worn a few times before being discarded. That is a pretty pitiful best-case scenario.

A landfill with dirt to the right and general waste to the left. A large tractor can be seen in the background.
Figure 4- Source: Yahoo Images; Fast fashion is often landfilled after only a few wears

 

Varying Disparities

Fast fashion’s impact on human rights depends on the location, which widely varies. In the United States, the textile waste predominantly goes to landfills. A 2007 North Carolina study showed how solid waste landfills are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods. In the world abroad, it is known that fast fashion companies like Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on the cheaper labor in the Global South, resulting in what many have called “modern slavery.”

Extensive human rights violations are associated with fast fashion, from child labor to exposure to toxic chemicals to dangerous working conditions. For instance, in a 2022 undercover investigation, it was discovered that Shein employees work 18-hour days with one day off per month and make as little as 4 cents per garment.

I am keeping this section brief not because these problems are not important but to discuss potential solutions because the ultimate truth is that many people already know about these issues, and we need action.

 

Affordability

I would be remiss without mentioning the most significant barrier to purchasing slow fashion, and that is affordability.

Since we live in a culture that encourages overconsumption, some may scoff at spending more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans. We are used to the cheap stuff and accustomed to buying something to use it for a few times before pawning it off at the thrift store or throwing it in the trash can.

Sustainable brands are notoriously expensive by modern standards, and not everyone can afford those brands because they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past, clothing has been made to last for generations, so it was expected that consumers would pay higher prices upon the new purchase.

I want to be clear here that in no way am I trying to overromanticize the past systems of the fashion industry. I would highly doubt that some Americans today seek to abolish the minimum wage or have children working in our factories again. With that being said, we have lost the skills, knowledge, and willpower to make our purchases last in a way that respects the resources and labor it took to make the piece.

 

Conclusion and Solutions

In terms of solutions, there are some things that we can do to spark change within the fashion industry. These actions exist on two primary fronts: purchasing and—let me emphasize this one here—NOT purchasing.

Regarding true ethics and sustainability, relying on companies to make ethical decisions is not the best strategy since many of them are dishonest about their products’ true social and environmental sustainability. This includes many brands that some would consider to be “sustainable.” Fashion companies are notorious for greenwashing their products, making them appear a better option, even when most of their clothing is not produced ethically or sustainably.

Due to this, consumers should focus on reducing their consumption overall rather than buying when possible.

The best way to minimize the impact on people and the planet manipulated by the fashion industry is to stop buying from those brands. If you need something new and want to buy it, I encourage you to return to your closet and shop from there (because you probably do not need anything). This might sound crazy, but most of us have more than we need, and we must recognize that and act accordingly.

Another solution is to borrow something from a friend or family member. Thrifting or buying secondhand can also be good options to minimize your impact.

All of these examples mentioned fall under the front of not purchasing. If a shirt has holes, learn to mend it to be re-worn. If you want to wear something new to an event, ask a friend to borrow something or try to style something in a new way. Use what you have, and you will be forced to be more creative.

Two women talking to each other. They are standing between two clothing rails on the street at a secondhand clothing sale.
Figure 5- Source: Yahoo Images; People shopping at a clothing swap

It can also be helpful to consider the washing instructions for specific items. Many articles of clothing would last significantly longer if they were hang-dried or hand-washed.

When these options have been exhausted, and you must purchase something new, be selective. As a consumer, making conscious choices when purchasing new clothing dramatically helps. Suppose you cannot picture yourself wearing something often, or you know the item does not go with anything you have. In that case, it is probably a good idea to refrain from purchasing it.

If you cannot afford to spend a lot of money on clothes, fast fashion is going to be the obvious choice, so it is best to focus on making a mindful purchase with an item you will wear for a long time. Beyond that, the best thing is to take care of your clothes as best as possible to maximize the use you can get out of them.

If you love a staple piece from a sustainable brand, try to save up to invest in it—I guarantee you that it will probably last for years. I recommend this website to check on brands you are interested in—it rates brands based on environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

 

Final Thoughts

We all experience the desire to have more, and that is not always a bad thing. Still, our culture has a lot of work to do regarding setting realistic expectations about the number of things we think we need.

For better or worse, I am an optimist at heart, and I am confident we can do better.